LSO/Haitink in New York – Beethoven Cycle

Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Timothy Hutto

Reviewed: 10 October, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The London Symphony Orchestra is currently in New York performing Beethoven symphonies with Bernard Haitink (7-13 October), and a Feature Review of the rest of the concerts will appear on The Classical Source from David M. Rice in due course.

There are many conductors who seem to want to leave their personal imprint on all they touch. There are others who seem more concerned with letting the composers’ works speak for themselves without resorting to any interpretative quirks. The second approach can produce faceless performances. But with the esteemed Dutch maestro Bernard Haitink on the podium, the New York audience was treated to memorable performances of two of Beethoven symphonies.

Heard midway through a week-long performance of all nine symphonies, the LSO produced an incredibly rich and warm sound in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, infamous for its stingy acoustic. Haitink seemed to bring together the best qualities of ‘historical performance’ practice with the tonal resources of the modern symphony orchestra. Articulation was well-pointed and tempos were generally on the quick side.

The opening of the Symphony No.4 featured beautiful sounds from the woodwinds with extraordinary control at pianissimo and piano levels. The Allegro vivace was fleet but never breathless. The timpanist, Nigel Thomas, was a bit aggressive with his fortissimos, but as the movement progressed, this seemed to contribute to the tempestuousness Haitink brought to the climaxes. The opening measure of the Adagio initially felt quite brisk until the entrance of the melody, which had a flowing quality impossible at the slower speed of many traditional performances. The pacing seemed ideal – even the smallest subdivisions never felt rushed. Especially lovely were the tone quality of the bassoonist and the soft playing by the clarinettist. The scherzo was unusually swift and the trio given an unexpectedly mischievous quality. The transition leading back to the scherzo was seamless. The finale was taken quite fast and executed with a restless, bustling quality in the strings. The only casualty of the tempo was the bassoon solo in the re-transition. Rather than the articulated version usually heard, it was slurred and the notes a bit smudged. Like the first movement, the finale was more aggressive than expected. It was, however, thrilling.

The opening of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony had a hushed quality that was most appealing. Not noticeably faster than usual, the first movement was highlighted by the rich, warm string sound and especially nice work from the horns. The diminuendo at the close of the exposition was particularly well-done and the development featured a nicely balanced dialogue between the first and second violins, seated to the left and right of the conductor. The fortissimo at the recapitulation was full-bodied and surprisingly passionate. The clarinet solo in the coda, played by Andrew Marriner, was excellent. The second movement, ‘Scene by a Brook’, was mesmerizing. The murmuring string parts were played very softly, perhaps a bit under the written dynamic level, which allowed the melody to be easily heard when played with a soft singing line. The bird-calls in the woodwinds which end the movement were well played; however, the cuckoo (clarinet) seemed rather too polite and genteel.

The tempo of the ‘Merry Gathering of Peasants’ (scherzo) was a bit slower than expected, thought certainly an allegro as indicated. It included exceptional work from the principal horn and clarinet players. The trio section, however, was faster than anticipated with a strong feeling of one-to-a-bar creating a rustic quality that was delightful. The ‘Storm’ movement opened very softly and at a rather fast tempo. All the dynamic gradations were carefully judged and for once the thunder and lightning effects in the music were well realized. Throughout the finale, the ‘Shepherd’s Song of Thanksgiving’, there was a focus on the singing quality of the melodic line. Particularly well-judged were the balance in the brass chorales and the warm sound in the full-bodied climaxes as well as the pianissimo strings in the coda.

The Lincoln Center audience gave the LSO and Bernard Haitink a prolonged ovation in recognition of an evening of exemplary music-making.

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